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Realizing Dignity through Decent Work

International Labor Organization chief, influential Member of Congress, senior AFL-CIO official, and Center for American Progress thought leaders discuss building a new international consensus on globalization.

Consumers and producers are separated by thousands of miles in today’s global marketplace, where economic forces have contributed to widespread growth as well as widening income gaps. Globalization remains a source of anxiety for those left behind both in the United States and around the world.

As keynote speaker at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event on Tuesday, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia emphasized the need to expand opportunities for decent work around the world. To ensure that women and men everywhere enjoy decent and productive work—where their rights are respected, an adequate income is generated, and adequate social protection is provided—Somavia called on the international community to translate the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda into action. This agenda “is based on four pillars: the need to promote simultaneously employment opportunities and enterprise development, respect for rights at work and trade unions, social protection systems, and dialogue for better labor relations.”

At the core of the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda is a belief that people should be able to work, and that such work should be rewarded with adequate compensation to ensure the health and security of workers’ families and to allow workers to save toward the future, said John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“Too many feel that the dignity of work is being devalued,” added Somavia, especially when faced with the anxiety of global markets. An approach that expands the principles of decent work will grow the global middle class that is necessary for global stability and security.

To advance the Decent Work Agenda, Somavia called for greater coherence between the policies and projects of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and United Nations Development Program and those of the ILO.

He impressed upon the audience—which featured representatives from current and former administrations, Congress, international institutions, business, organized labor, civil society, think tanks, academia, and the media—the need for U.S. leadership in this effort: “[I]n a new era when the U.S. is having to rethink its role in the world and its place in the architecture of global governance, I feel that Decent Work for All can become a U.S. vision, maybe its mission, at home and abroad … U.S. leadership can make a huge difference.”

Several key voices in the American policy arena took up Somavia’s challenge. Engaging in a lively conversation about building domestic consensus around globalization and the Decent Work Agenda were Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means committee; Barbara Shailor, director of the International Department of the AFL-CIO; and Gene Sperling, senior fellow at CAP and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Council on Foreign Relations. CAP senior fellow Rick Samans, also the managing director of the World Economic Forum, moderated the conversation.

Recent debates in Congress over labor and environmental safeguards in trade agreements with Peru and Panama have highlighted the role of U.S. policy in advancing decent work initiatives in our trading partners.

All panelists agreed that the ILO must assume a larger role in monitoring labor practices around the world. While the cost of labor in developing countries will most likely remain low compared with U.S. levels, we must make every effort to ensure that this advantage does not stem from the exploitation of slave or sweatshop labor, said Sperling.

Monitoring international factories, especially on the sub-contracting level, is one way to protect workers, said Sperling, and for the most part, businesses would support stricter monitoring policies rather than face the fallout of a sweatshop scandal.

Yet the panelists spoke about the need for progressives to move away from a domineering approach when addressing workers’ rights abroad. By dedicating more development assistance to helping create social safety nets and expand the legitimacy of rights language in international trade agreements, the United States can enhance workers’ rights in a more inclusive, development-minded manner. Similar policies of union-building played a key role in the U.S. agreements with Cambodia and Jordan, said Shailor, and empowered workers to see the value of their work and their role in social dialogue. Such empowerment can play a key role in shifting power dynamics and addressing inequality, said Levin.

The panelists showed that a consensus on a more holistic U.S. policy on workers’ rights is beginning to form through a commitment to alternative empowerment initiatives. They observed that the ILO and advocacy groups have laid the framework, leaving it to Congress and the administration to assume the lead in global implementation.

“We are in a very good place to take not only the debate, but the reality, of the Decent Work Agenda forward,” said Shailor.

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